- - Thursday, August 25, 2011

NYUNDO, RwandaJanette Mukeshimana, 17, was a newborn when she came to Noel NyundoRwanda’s oldest and largest orphanage — where she has friends, food, shelter and a chance for an education.

Other orphans, she said, would never leave Noel by choice.

“Some refuse to go to their families because the families don’t want them,” Janette said. “They won’t pay for school fees, clothes or food.”

Rwandan officials are embarking on an ambitious plan to rid this East African country of orphanages, a sorry vestige of the 1994 civil war and genocide that left hundreds of thousands of children without parents.

Rwandan policy stipulates that children should live with families, not in institutions, said child protection specialist Benilde Uwababyeyi of the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion.

“We hope to have a Rwanda without orphanages,” Ms. Uwababyeyi said. “Rwandans have many positive values. In Rwandan culture, there is a culture of helping. Even though we haven’t many resources, [we have] those kinds of positive values.”

Noel Nyundo is the first orphanage to be scheduled for downsizing.

Officials said the children will be placed with their own or adoptive families, but orphans fear that they will never be at home among the adults who have rejected them.

Critics say that closing orphanages in Rwanda, one of the world’s poorest countries, will discourage international donors without guaranteeing care for all of the children.

Last week at Noel, several girls scurried past on the sidewalk outside Janette’s dank dormitory before she ran out into the rain to join them. She said she had heard about the orphanage’s closing on the radio, but she hoped it was not true.

About an hour later, Janette was one of dozens of teens squeezed onto wooden benches in a meeting hall. Outside the hall, a government official said they had called the children together to dispel the rumors that they had heard on the radio.

At the meeting, another official sounded upbeat when she said they would be downsizing Noel slowly, and every child older than 3 would be placed in a safe family. About 150 babies will remain in the center.

The teens stared blankly as they listened. The government officials then took notes and listened as the teens spoke up, one by one.

“These people never came to see us,” said a teenage girl wearing a green scarf and a weathered pink T-shirt. “Why would they take us in? They will have to be forced.”

An official told her not to worry. The government was going to teach families how to care for their children.

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